A 60-day trip around Greenland to measure climate change

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In the summer of 2019, the GreenLAnd Circumnavigation Expedition (GLACE) will make its way around the island of Greenland. The aim of the trip, which is being run by the Swiss Polar Institute, is to collect data from the ground, air and ocean in order to study the effects of global warming. A call for project submissions has been launched within the scientific community.

This summer some of the Arctic’s permanent ice caps began breaking up for the first time. This worrying news came just as the EPFL-based Swiss Polar Institute (SPI) began preparing for a major research expedition to Greenland. The aim of this expedition - known as the GreenLAnd Circumnavigation Expedition (GLACE) - is to gather as much data as possible about how the ice cap covering the island is melting, how this process interacts with the surrounding ocean, and how climate change is more broadly affecting the region. The expedition will run for some 60 days, from late July to the end of September 2019. A call for proposals has been announced, so it’s time for any polar experts out there to put pen to paper - you have until 10 September!

The expedition, which is being supported by grants from Dr. Frederik Paulsen, is the second of its kind. From December 2016 to March 2017, the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) took about 150 researchers involved in 22 projects around the Antarctic.

Although GLACE will involve just ten research projects, it is no less ambitious than its predecessor. The projects will cover fields as varied as climatology, oceanography, marine biology, microbiology, hydrology, and chemistry, to name a few. And during the expedition, samples will be taken from the air, as well as from the ocean and the ground. As with ACE, the aim is to create synergies between the various research projects and obtain a holistic view of the environmental issues affecting the polar regions, which are key to regulating the earth’s climate and have been hit particularly hard by climate change.

The Akademik Treshnikov - the Russian research ship that transported ACE - will also carry the GLACE researchers. It will be refitted and new equipment added for the expedition. For part of the journey, the Treshnikov will be escorted by a second Russian vessel - the 50 Let Pobedy - which is the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker.

Unchartered territory

"Even if it is starting to break up, the North Greenland ice sheet is still among the thickest in the entire Arctic," says Danièle Rod, the executor director of SPI. "The north winds mean that the ice accumulates along the coast. The Treshnikov won’t be able to get through those areas on its own. We’re going to try and get as close to the coast as possible - it will be the first time an expedition has taken such a difficult course."

The journey - a 13’500 km round trip - will take place in two main stages. The first will focus on southern Greenland (SG). Setting off from Reykjavik in Iceland, the ship will sail all the way to Ilulisat, a town with almost 5,000 inhabitants on Greenland’s western coast. So far, three stops are scheduled along the way - at the Kangerlussuaq (SG1) and Helheim (SG2) fjords and the Prince Christian Sound, the southernmost tip of the island (SG3). These locations were chosen primarily because they are home to lakes and ice tongues that have a major influence on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and because they provide access to some of the highest mountains in Greenland, where samples of older ice will be taken. These sites also offer rich biodiversity.

700 kilometers from the North Pole

For the second leg, the ship will head north (NG), making its way back to Reykjavik via the Nares Straits, which separate Greenland from the northernmost island in Canada. Four key stop-off locations have been identified along the way, including one alternative in case it’s not possible to land at one of the other three sites or in case of severe ice conditions.

Two of these locations are outlets for meltwater from the large Ryder, Ostenfeld (NG1) and Zachariae (NG4) glaciers. For the first time, researchers will be able to study in depth the impact that this meltwater has on the marine environment. The ship will also stop to allow researchers to gather data at Independence Fjord (NG3), which is 200 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide and an ecosystem in and of itself. Finally, a landing is scheduled at Cape Morris Jesup (NG2), which is the northernmost tip of Greenland and just 700 kilometers from the North Pole. Samples taken there will be compared with those collected in the very south of Greenland.